Foucault’s 'History of Sexuality': A Marxist engagement

by Jordan Humphreys • Published 12 July 2017

Sexuality in the twenty-first century is riven with contradictions. We are told that in the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the sixties that we live in an era of sexual freedom, and this is backed up by real changes in society over the last several decades. However this often comes into conflict with the reality of a world filled with examples of alienated and oppressed sexuality.

Foucault would have been surprised by many things in the twenty-first century, however the basic coordinates of sexuality today would not have been one of them. The framework he laid out in The History of Sexuality provides a useful contribution for getting to grips with the nature of sexuality and its relationship to changes in society.[1]

Despite the fact that Foucault was not a Marxist, his analysis still broke important ground around a number of historical and theoretical issues. These I would argue can not only be incorporated into a Marxist understanding of sexuality, but serve to clarify and enrich it. And what emerges from a serious reading of his arguments is a very different picture of Foucault than that usually presented to us in academia and by many of his erstwhile followers. Rather than being simply a theorist and historian of discourses, cataloguing changes in the ideologies of societies, Foucault draws upon transformations in the nature of society in order to explain changes in sexuality.

However, precisely because Foucault comes at these questions with his own framework, one which is fundamentally incompatible with Marxism, it also has its limitations and inconsistencies. Therefore it is only by going through his arguments in some detail that we can sort out what can be critically incorporated and what must be rejected. In this article I will focus on three central points: Foucault’s critique of the repressive hypothesis, the socially constructed nature of sexuality, and his analysis of the relationship between power and sexuality.

The repressive hypothesis

Foucault starts his history of sexuality with a discussion of what he calls the “repressive hypothesis”, which he considers to be the dominant way in which critical theorists understand the relationship between sexuality and society. The repressive hypothesis argues that the key driving factor behind this relationship is the need for society to repress sex. Foucault associates the repressive hypothesis with the writings of the left wing Freudian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich and the radical critical theorist Herbert Marcuse, however he clearly sees it as a broader conception held by much of what may loosely be called the left at the time.[2] The origins of this dynamic are, according to these theorists, rooted in the development of capitalism.[3] The hypothesis is that “if sex is so rigorously repressed, this is because it is incompatible with the intensive work imperative”.[4]

Hence the demand for sexual freedom and greater knowledge about sex becomes not just a political act, but “the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression”. Therefore in the modern era when people speak about sex:

We are conscious of defying established power, our tone of voice shows that we know we are being subversive… Something that smacks of revolt, of promised freedom, of the coming of a different law, slips easily into the discourse on sexual oppression.[5]

Foucault rejects this hypothesis. He believes that the key link between sexuality and society is the need to regulate sexuality in the interests of social order, and that while repression may be an aspect of that strategy, it has not been the only one and it is not the driving force behind the relationship. As Peter Drucker points out, Foucault “developed a conception of sexual freedom that was distinctive in its understanding that social and political repression is only one of a number of mechanisms that shape and constrain sexual formations in the interests of maintaining power relations”.[6]

He backs this up with a historical account which shows that rather than sexuality being excluded, the discourse on sex has dramatically increased over the last 200 years, and that while this discourse has included taboos and prohibitions it has also “ensured the solidification and implantation of an entire sexual mosaic”.[7]

Sometimes people read this and think he is coming from a conservative direction, that he is uncritically accepting the ideology that links the rise of capitalism to personal freedom. However as Foucault points out, “it is not a matter of saying that sexuality, far from being repressed in capitalist and bourgeois societies, has on the contrary benefitted from a regime of unchanging liberty, nor is it a matter of saying that power in society such as ours is more tolerant than repressive”.[8] This is a point he repeats several times, for instance:

Let there be no misunderstanding: I do not claim that sex has not been prohibited or barred or masked or misapprehended since the classical age; nor do I even assert that it has suffered these things any less from that period on than before. I do not maintain that the prohibition of sex is a ruse; but it is a ruse to make prohibition into the basic and constitutive element from which one would be able to write the history of what has been said concerning sex starting from the modern epoch.[9]

Furthermore Foucault is not rejecting the repressive hypothesis entirely, rather what he is interested in is correcting a one-sided view of these questions, and constructing a more serious analysis of the place sexuality holds in modern society: “The doubts I would like to oppose to the repressive hypothesis are aimed less at showing it to be mistaken than at putting it back within a general economy of discourses on sex in modern societies since the seventeenth century”.[10] From this standpoint he argues that “the central issue is not to determine whether one says yes or no to sex…but to account for the fact that it is spoken about, to discover who does the speaking, the positions and viewpoints from which they speak, the institutions which prompt people to speak about it”.[11]

What was behind this incitement to talk about sex? For Foucault the key is to the need to regulate sexuality in the interests of social order. He writes that “one had to speak of it as of a thing to be not simply condemned or tolerated but managed, inserted into systems of utility, regulated for the greater good of society. Sex was not something one simply judged; it was a thing one administered”.[12]

And this in itself was rooted in concerns that institutions of society had in regard to “population”

Governments perceived that they were not dealing with simply subjects, or even with a ‘people, but with a ‘population’, with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables: birth and death rates, life expectancy, fertility, state of health, frequency of illnesses, patterns of diet and habitation.


it was essential that the state know what was happening with its citizens’ sex, and the use they made of it, but also that each individual be capable of controlling the use he made of it. Between the state and the individual, sex became an issue, and a public issue no less.[13]

So what should Marxists think about this critique?

It’s important to understand the context in which Foucault is making his argument. This is the situation of sexuality in the Western world in the aftermath of the upheavals of the sixties and seventies. As Foucault points out in regard to the repressive hypothesis, there is an idea that the social order is dedicated to suppressing sex, and that therefore sex itself was something transgressive or even radical. However in the post-sexual revolution world this became harder to sustain; it became increasingly clear that capitalist countries were willing to accommodate various sexual relations, attitudes and representations which had previously been excluded and censored. This paved the way for a whole range of bohemian, free love “radicals” to in turn accommodate themselves to the system. For them it seemed like what was at fault was simply the older generation’s conservative culture around sex which was declining as they were replaced by a younger, free-thinking generation. While there were still many issues to work on, for instance the rights of lesbians and gays, this could be expected to change over time. A symbiosis between liberal democratic capitalism and sexual freedom emerged.

This is the context in which Foucault is dealing with these questions; he wants to assert on the contrary that we cannot have a liberated relationship with what we understand as sex under the current setup of power. This means he has to critique the dominant left analysis of sexuality and repression, which was influenced by the writings of Reich and Marcuse.[14]

Foucault is right to point out the inadequacies of their analyses. They posited a mechanical, linear and one-sided relationship between sexuality and society, in which the driving dynamic, root cause and explanation of the relationship was the need for capitalism to repress sex. Reich for instance writes that “capitalist society can find no other way to relate to the satisfaction of sexual needs than to refuse these needs”.[15] Marcuse roots this refusal in the incompatibility between sexuality and the demands of industrialisation,[16] while Reich sees sexual repression as primarily useful for promoting submissiveness in the working class, explaining it as the “ideological mooring of the dominant economic system in the psychic structure of the members of the oppressed class”.[17] And this leads Reich to see “satisfied sexuality” as a “revolutionary force”.[18]

Foucault offers an alternative history of sexuality, which allows him to advance an analysis which not only reveals how we are not liberated but also explains why. To do this he returns to the age of sexual repression par excellence, the Victorian era. What he finds is that rather than capitalism simply inaugurating a new era of sexual repression, the last several hundred years have seen an incitement of discourse about sex and sexuality.

Now he doesn’t think that repression wasn’t an element of this period, as he argues: “areas were thus established, if not of utter silence, at least of tact and discretion: between parents and children, for instance, or teachers and pupils, or masters and domestic servants…and this almost certainly constituted a whole restrictive economy”. However at the same time there emerged “a steady proliferation of discourses concerned with sex – a discursive ferment that gathered momentum from the eighteenth century onwards…an institutional incitement to speak about it, and to do so more and more: a determination on the part of the agencies of power to hear it spoken about, and to cause it to speak through explicit articulation and endless accumulated detail”.[19]

And Foucault provides a whole series of examples of this explosion of discussion about sex: the growing obsession with sex in Catholic confession, the rise of scandalous literature written by libertines and people like the Marquis de Sade, the emergence of a whole medical apparatus and scientific theoretical tradition dealing with sex, and the growing concern with and discussion about sex by various elements of the judicial-police system.

Foucault raises an interesting historical example which shows how this played out. In 1867, a “simple minded” farm hand in a village called Lapcourt was arrested for obtaining some caresses from a young girl. After being arrested he was turned over to the courts which in turn gave him over to doctors who placed him under observation for life and used him as an important subject of research. The end result of this was published studies widely read and discussed not just among the medical establishment but by the broader well-read public of the day. Foucault asks: “What is the significant thing about this story? The pettiness of it all; the fact that this everyday occurrence in the life of village sexuality…could become, from a certain time, the object not only of a collective intolerance but of a judicial action, a medical intervention, a careful clinical examination, and an entire theoretical elaboration”. He also points out though: “One can be fairly certain that during the same period the Lapcourt schoolmaster was instructing the little villagers to mind their language and not talk about all these things aloud”. The end result of this incitement to more and more discussion about sex is captured well by Foucault: “These sites radiated discourses aimed at sex, intensifying people’s awareness of it as a constant danger, and this in turn created further incentive to talk about it”.[20]

I think that the vast bulk of his analysis that I’ve laid out so far is perfectly compatible with a Marxist understanding of sexuality; not only compatible but useful. It helps to clarify the nature of the relationship between sexuality and capitalism by revealing how concurrent with the rise of capitalist society there was an explosive increase in discussion around sex, while at the same time sexuality was not liberated from the structures of power or the discourses of the ruling ideas.

It also helps us to see how we can end up in the situation we are in today, where sex can saturate culture, the media, television and having a healthy sex life can be seen by almost everyone as essential, while at the same time we can be so alienated from it.

Foucault himself draws out the political importance of this. If you think that the only relationship that can exist between capitalism and sexuality is a pretty narrow conception of repression, then you end up thinking that by being “for sex” you are for a radical position absolutely at odds with the imperatives of the system. Foucault points out that this isn’t just people being stupid, it is reinforced by the fact that while there are restrictions and repressions, a focus on this one element of the situation leads to a total misunderstanding of the situation. You end up thinking that you are the most ardent critic of the system, when the thrust of what you are saying is in fact going along with the general flow of society. As Foucault puts it: “We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality”.[21]

This is important, not just in critiquing those who have made their peace with the capitalist order. As Drucker draws out:

[R]ecognising the reality of repression does not in itself bring us any closer to identifying the direction of a vector of sexual oppression at a specific historical moment, or the logic structuring at a specific historical moment a hierarchy of sexualities – because the direction of the vector and the logic of the hierarchy are usually external to the sexual realm. They reflect the interests and ideologies of dominant economic, social and political forces. And combating the power of those forces demands far more than the “campaign against prohibitions” that sexual politics has largely been reduced to since the 1970s.[22]

It’s also compatible because there is a tradition of Marxist and Marxist-influenced writings by historians who have contributed to constructing a theory of the relationship between sexuality and capitalism that does not depend upon the kind of crude analysis put forward by the repressive hypothesis – from historians influenced by the socialist wing of the gay liberation movement like John D’Emilio, David Greenberg and Estelle Freedman to revolutionary socialist writers.

These writers see that there is a dynamic relationship between sexuality and capitalism, in which sexual experiences and identities are shaped by the material conditions and structures of class society, and are transformed, albeit not in an unmediated way, by what are often contradictory developments with that society. In particular, the need that the capitalist class has for the reproduction of labour power, and the way this is mediated through institutions such as the family and the state, shapes how people both perceive and relate to each other sexually.

This is compatible with Foucault’s emphasis on the regulation of sexuality being key, and repression being just one element within this. Now behind Foucault’s analysis of the incitement to discourse is undoubtedly his broader theory of power, which is at its heart incompatible with Marxism. However this doesn’t stop him from being able to make important and clarifying additions to our understanding of sexuality. His broader theory does however raise some important limitations in regard to his theory of sexuality, which I will take up later. However before we discuss some of the problems with this, we have to consider an important issue, the socially constructed nature of sexuality.

The social construction of sexuality

One of the great strengths of Foucault’s history of sexuality is his willingness to expose what seem to be eternal features of humanity as socially constructed and determined. He shows how the slow emergence of modern society led to radical transformations in regard to sexuality, which reveal how it is socially constructed and reconstructed over time. In particular he focuses not just on the dramatic emergence of a whole host of sexual identities, but also the way “sexuality” itself is something created at the time.

Whereas before capitalism there had been a relatively loose dichotomy between “natural” and “unnatural” sexual acts, now there arose a whole system of analysis in which each was given its own classification. And out of this there was a transformation from unnatural sexual acts to sexual identities, which defined who you were at a fundamental level; for example the figure of the homosexual man:

The nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case study, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle… The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species.[23]

This classification of sexual desires was not simply a question of repression, although that was undoubtedly an important part of it. For at the same time, despite still being beset by a range of prescriptions and pressures for heterosexual monogamy, the general trend was towards a situation in which “the legitimate couple, with its regular sexuality, had a right to more discretion”. However concurrent with this, “what came under scrutiny was the sexuality of children, mad men and women, and criminals, the sexuality of those who did not like the opposite sex”.[24]

The shift from prescriptions against certain sexual acts to the social creation of a homosexual identity is something also noted by socialist writers around the same time as Foucault is working on his history of sexuality. In a lecture given by John D’Emilio in 1979, titled “Capitalism and Gay Identity”, he argues against

the myth that enjoys nearly universal acceptance in the gay movement, the myth of the “eternal homosexual”. The argument runs something like this: gay men and lesbians always were and always will be. We are everywhere; not just now, but throughout history, in all societies and all periods… Here I wish to challenge this myth. I want to argue that gay men and lesbians have not always existed. Instead, they are a product of history, and have come into existence in a specific historical era.[25]

Similarly Norah Carlin, writing in International Socialism in 1989:

Nothing shows more than the history of same-sex relations that the most basic human activities, including sexuality, are collectively constructed in human society. The starting point has to be a recognition that “homosexuality” is an idea that did not exist before the late nineteenth century… Previously, there had been words for sexual acts between members of the same sex which were regarded as sinful or criminal, but the idea that these acts are the sign of an underlying condition or type of person emerged clearly only in this period.[26]

Foucault does however go beyond asserting that there was the creation of various sexual identities with the rise of capitalism. He also seeks to show how sexuality emerges in this period as a specific domain, of particularly scientific study, and how the rise of sexual identities transforms how everyone relates to sex. In doing so he goes beyond the pervasive picture presented to us by academia, where Foucault is lumped in with other European post-war theorists whose differences are downplayed to construct a rather banal “French Theory”. Rather than being simply a theorist and historian of discourses, cataloguing changes in the ideologies of societies, Foucault draws upon transformations in the nature of society in order to explain changes in sexuality.

With the emergence of capitalism, Foucault argues, sexuality began to be restructured, at first not among the mass of the urban and rural population, but within the ruling bourgeois families. As he points out, “The bourgeoisie began by considering that its own sex was something important, a fragile treasure, a secret that had to be discovered at all costs”. It was within these families that concerns were first raised about the sexuality of children, women and “perverse” men, and they were the first to be subjected to the examinations by medical doctors and psychologists. And what was at the heart of these concerns? “[T]he obligation to preserve a healthy line of descent for his family and his social class.”[27] It was only later that these changes in sexuality were then promoted among the mass of the working populations, and for very different reasons.

Foucault points out that this is a further blow to the repressive hypothesis. For if the core dynamic between capitalism and sexuality was simply the ruling classes’ need to repress the sexuality of the working class in order to make them fit for exploitation in the factory, then why does it start within the ruling families? To explain this in more detail he constructs an argument that draws upon some understanding of the dynamics of capitalism and the relationships between classes, which further undermines the dominant academic narrative about him. In it he not only critiques the repressive hypothesis but also the arguments put forward by post-structuralist thinkers who root sexual repression in the nature of “desire” itself, which is presented in an abstract, ahistorical way.

As noted earlier, Foucault roots the initial stages in the transformation of sexuality in the need of the bourgeoisie to preserve a line of descent for its families and social classes.[28] This is difficult for them due to the differences between them and the old feudal ruling classes. One of the core conceptions for the feudal order was blood right and lineage; they lived in a conservatively ordered hierarchical social structure. For the feudal elite the family was important for the maintenance and continuation of ownership over the land. The bourgeoisie on the other hand cannot rule by blood right and inherited rights over others in the same way – the world they came to rule over was far more unstable and dynamic. Instead the bourgeois family was primarily concerned with the healthy regeneration of their class. This became a great obsession of their class, and led into all sorts of areas, from eugenics and race theory to concerns with the sexuality of children, women and “perverse” men.

However this was not just a matter of restrictions. Alongside it and increasingly dominating it was an obsession with constructing a healthy sexuality for the ruling elite, and this in turn produced and reinforced an obsessive focus on sex as at the core of individual bourgeois identity.

This class must be seen rather as being occupied, from the mid-eighteenth century on, with creating its own sexuality and forming a specific body based upon it , a “class” body with its health, hygiene, descent, and race: the autosexualization of its body, the incarnation of sex in its body… [I]t converted the blue blood of the nobles into a sound organism and a healthy sexuality.[29]

From this point of view it’s easy to see why the bourgeoisie were unconcerned with the sexuality of the masses they exploited for as long as they could. As Foucault points out: “The living conditions that were dealt to the proletariat, particularly in the first half of the nineteenth century, show there was anything but concern for its body and sex: it was of little importance whether those people lived or died”.[30]

He argues that for this situation to change, certain social conditions had to arise: first of all the development of modern industry, which in turn needed a stable workforce, as well as the emergence of the means to restructure sexuality, i.e. educational, medical and administrative institutions being opened up to regulating the lives of the mass of working people.[31]

Foucault’s argument can be further reinforced by looking at the differences in terms of the family and the state in feudal and capitalist society. In feudal society the mass of the population were rural peasants, and while their sexuality was oppressed you cannot seriously talk about the ruling class regulating their sexuality to any significant degree. The sexual experiences and ideas of the peasant family were limited by the nature of their place in society. As a site of production, the number of children produced by a family was determined by what could be supported by the size and quality of the land on which they lived, and their sexual experiences by the nature of rural life in which anonymous sexual activity was difficult in such a narrow world. Thus the peasant family for the most part regulated itself. If there was not the reason to regulate the sexuality of the mass of the population in the same way, nor was there really the means.

The old feudal state was in no position to seriously intervene into the family world of the rural population. As the Marxist theorist Lukács points out:

[P]re-capitalist societies are much less cohesive than capitalism. The various parts are much more self-sufficient and less closely interrelated than in capitalism… [I]n such circumstances the state, i.e. the organised unity, remains insecurely anchored in the real life of society. One sector of society simply lives out its “natural” existence in what amounts to a total independence of the fate of the state.[32]

Not so under capitalism, and here Foucault’s points fit in well with an argument that Marxists make in regard to the origins of the modern family in the closing stages of the industrial revolution. Lindsey German for instance argues that while the land enclosures and the destruction of the basis of peasant life drove masses of the rural poor into the urban centres, the bourgeoisie in England was unconcerned with the nature of the working class family. In fact in the poverty-stricken, rapidly industrialising world of early capitalism, the working class family almost collapsed. For the ruling class though the continuation of the working class family wasn’t very relevant as long as floods of new labour kept coming into the cities. However as that started to dry up, and modern industry demanded a more efficient workforce, a wholesale shift was required. Campaigns were whipped up by the ruling class and its middle class allies to impose family structures and values upon the working masses.[33]

Sexuality and power

This is not to say that there aren’t serious problems with Foucault’s analysis. He repeatedly returns to the question of why modern society needs to regulate sexuality, and is unable to come up with a clear answer. So he writes:

All this garrulous attention has us stew over sexuality, is it not motivated by one basic concern: to ensure population, to reproduce labor capacity, to perpetuate the form of social relations: in short, to constitute a sexuality that is economically useful and politically conservative? I still do not know whether this is the ultimate objective but this much is certain, reduction has not been the means employed to achieve it.[34]

What he is struggling with I think is that he associates analyses which root social relations in economic relations with the various shades of crude Stalinist Marxism dominant in France and the world more generally at the time. So although his analysis on one level points in that direction, he backs away from it. However by refusing to grapple with the underlying question of class and capitalism in a more serious way, he leaves a serious hole in his analysis.

D’Emilio for instance points out that while Foucault links the establishment of capitalism with the emergence of a gay identity, he doesn’t explain what it is about the nature of capitalism as a system of production that has allowed for the emergence of such an identity. D’Emilio roots this in the spread of capitalist social relations which resulted in mass urbanisation alongside a transformation in the family from a site of production. As he writes:

In divesting the household of its economic independence and fostering the separation of sexuality from procreation, capitalism has created conditions that allow some men and women to organize a personal life around their erotic/emotional attraction to their own sex. It has made possible the formation of urban communities of lesbians and gay men and, more recently, of a politics based on a sexual identity.[35]

The inability to understand the concrete relationship between capitalism and sexuality is also clear when Foucault discusses what he calls the two “logics of power”: the “deployment of alliance”, which is restrictive and associated with pre-capitalist power structures but enduring after that, and the “deployment of sexuality”, in which the regulation of sexuality is key and is linked to the development of modern industrialised liberal democratic capitalism.[36]

This is interlinked into the first problem. Rather than rooting changes in sexuality in the often contradictory development of capitalist production and its changing needs in regard to the family and reproduction, he constructs these two logics of power. There is some truth in distinguishing between the two “deployments” as he does, as sexuality has undergone important transformations with the transition from feudalism to capitalism and then under the development of capitalism. However by conceptualising them as two logics of power he opens up the way to his broader theory of power, in which it is seen as a multitude of localised power relations without any centre or driving dynamic. This is clear in his section critiquing what he calls the “juridico-discursive model” of power. In this model according to Foucault power

is defined in a strangely restrictive way, in that, to begin with, this power is poor in resources, sparing in its methods, monotonous in the tactics it utilizes, incapable of invention, and seemingly doomed always to repeat itself. Further it is a power that only has the force of the negative on its side, a power to say no; in no condition to produce, capable only of posting limits, it is basically anti-energy.[37]

This conception of power, he argues, underpins conservative, liberal and Marxist understandings of the state, but he never examined Marxist writings on power and the state that were from a revolutionary perspective. The socialist theorists of the state he explored were either of an essentially social democratic or Stalinist background.[38] Compared to this he offers an alternative model of power:

[P]ower must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization; as the process which, through ceaseless struggles and confrontations, transforms, strengthens, or reverses them; as the support which these force relations find in one another, thus forming a chain or a system, or on the contrary, the disjunctions and contradictions which isolate them from one another; and lastly, as the strategies in which they take effect.[39]

Thus, “power is everywhere, not because it embraces everything, but because it comes from everywhere…power is not something that is acquired, sized, or shared…[and] power comes from below; that is, there is no binary and all-encompassing opposition between rulers and ruled at the root of power relations, and serving as a general matrix”.[40]

The last remark is a clear dig at the centrality of the struggle between capitalists and the working class in Marxist theory.

This conceptualisation of power can make more sense when we are talking about sexuality. On an important level it is more amorphous and decentred than say the state or relations between bosses and workers; it has a significant level of autonomy from the economy. However as I have shown throughout this article, and as Foucault in his own way has also pointed to, sexuality has been repeatedly transformed due to developments in the socio-economic base of society, and in particular the changing needs of the capitalist class and the processes of production upon which its power lies. It is much clearer to articulate the relationship as between a concrete historical form of a mode of production and the varied and changing forms of sexuality that develop from it.

One last point about sexuality and power: Foucault points out that the transformation of sexuality within the bourgeois family results in sex being seen as “a mysterious and undefined power”, or as a secret. This is at the ideological heart of the confusing and contradictory way in which sex is seen in modern society and underpins his point about the incitement to discourse.

What is peculiar to modern societies, in fact, is not that they consigned sex to a shadow existence, but that they dedicated themselves to speaking of it ad infinitum, while exploiting it as the secret.[41]

This contradiction leads people to think that the intense obsession with sex as fundamental to understanding oneself and others is a natural organic desire being artificially repressed by social norms, rather than grasping that this way of relating to sex is itself a product of society. And when you think about this knot of contradiction at the heart of how sexuality is presented under capitalism it’s easy to see how this manifests itself in so many ways.

However Foucault’s point here also raises a deeper question, for Foucault not only believes that sexuality is a social construction but that so is sex itself, and this is linked into his broader rejection of human nature. On this point Foucault is less clear than many of his followers who draw a sharp and unbridgeable gap between social construction and human nature. So for instance he writes:

People are going to say that I am evading the biologically established existence of sexual functions…that I speak of sexuality as if sex did not exist…the purpose of the present study is in fact to show how deployments of power are directly connected to the body – to bodies, functions, physiological processes, sensations, and pleasures; far from the body having to be effaced, what is needed is to make it visible through an analysis in which the biological and the historical are not consecutive to another, as in the evolutionism of the first sociologists, but are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of modern technologies of power.[42]

Partly this is a move away from some of his earlier and more unrelentingly hostile comments on human nature, such as his famous debate with Chomsky, a development which would continue after he completed the first volume of his history of sexuality. However it is the case that he has not totally moved away from this view within this book, and because he hasn’t seriously grappled with the relationship between the biological and the historical, and the question of human nature, he leaves many questions unanswered.

Foucault can also gain traction around this point because the common alternative to it is to assert a transhistorical human sexuality, most often simply an updated and more politically correct version of that outlined by Freud.

Marxism brings an important perspective to this question.[43] While we reject the commonplace right wing view that attributes everything from war to the free market to some amorphous conservative human nature, Marxists do not reject that such a thing as human nature exists, nor that sex is an important aspect of it. Instead we seek to show how the fundamental aspects of human nature are modified and shaped by various transformations in social relations. As Sheila McGregor argues: “We are born with the ability to see, hear, smell, touch and taste. But how we do these things depends upon the society we grow up in. We are born with the ability to speak, but which languages we learn depends on which ones are used where we grow up. And so it is with human sexuality”.[44]

To ignore this not only divorces humanity from the natural world but opens up the space to collapse all human identity into an irresolvable relativism in which there can be no non-social basis for humanity’s needs or desires. Furthermore, without taking human nature into account, albeit a human nature that isn’t unalterable, you cannot achieve the analysis Foucault desires in which the biological and historical “are bound together in an increasingly complex fashion in accordance with the development of modern technologies of power”.[45]

Conclusion: Marx with Foucault?

I have tried to show how many aspects of Foucault’s History of Sexuality can be incorporated into a Marxist framework. However it is important to distinguish between this approach and the various attempts to reconcile Foucault with Marxism. Both the autonomist Antonio Negri and the Eurocommunist Nicos Poulantzas drew upon Foucault’s writings to explore the nature of the state and power in contemporary capitalism,[46] while more recently the Althusserian Jacques Bidet has released Foucault with Marx and Christopher Chitty has translated The Mesh of Power which contains Foucault’s most serious attempt to grapple with Marx.[47] The problem with all these attempts is that they can only reconcile the two systems of thought by rejecting fundamental aspects of Marxist theory.

Negri’s theory was shaped by the massive defeat suffered by the Italian far left during the 1970s, as Alex Callinicos points out:

It was Michel Foucault who in a series of key texts in the mid-1970s developed a critique of Marxism based on the idea that domination consists in a plurality of power relations that cannot be removed by means of some comprehensive social transformation (this would, as in Stalinist Russia, merely reinstate a new apparatus of domination) but only resisted on a decentralised and localised basis… What Negri does…is to take over Foucault’s disintegration of the social totality into a multiplicity of micro-practices and claim that this is what Marx himself does, at least in the Grundrisse.[48]

Callinicos rightly explains that this analysis was as much based on Deleuze as it was Foucault, whose criticisms of Marxism weren’t as clear.

The more contemporary attempts to bring Marx and Foucault together by Bidet and Chitty are motivated by a reaction to the taming of Foucault’s more radical arguments by mainstream academia. Chitty in particular has shown, contrary to popular mythology, how Foucault took a deep interest in the writings of Marx and had political relations with a range of people on the French Marxist left. Like Negri though, Chitty can only bring the two together by implying that Marx’s understanding of power is actually, in embryonic form, Foucault’s. He draws attention to the lecture “The Mesh of Power”[49] in which Foucault argues that Marx’s analysis of the class struggle in the factory is similar to his own concept of decentred, localised struggle with no central dynamic, as the class struggle takes place in innumerable disconnected workplaces across the world.

Bidet reconciles Foucault and Marx by using them as the pillars to erect a broader “general theory of society”, that he believes goes beyond the limits of either thinker. In order to do this he conceptualises each thinker as explaining a core aspect of the “metastructure” of modern society – Marx’s critique reveals the role of the market while Foucault’s explains the role of organisation.[50] However as Bidet admits: “The undertaking marks a rupture within the Marxist tradition. And Foucault himself would have judged it inadmissible in its very principle”.[51]

As I have tried to show, Marx’s understanding of class and capitalism is not only fundamentally incompatible with Foucault’s analysis of power, it is superior. The weakness of Foucault’s theory of power is particularly clear when we approach the question of resistance. One of the most important critiques made by the socialist left of Foucault is that his philosophy is ultimately a barrier to a conception of human agency,[52] let alone liberation. How true is this in regard to The History of Sexuality?

Foucault is obviously sceptical of many movements and theories that purport to be able to challenge the structures of power and domination that cripple our lives. In his book Discipline and Punish for example he is scathing towards the prison reformers who ended up helping to create a prison system more in tune with the needs of modern capital, and never raised the question of why there should be prisons at all. And in his history of sexuality, as we have seen, he wants to show how many of those who think they are fighting for sexual liberation end up accommodating to the structures and desires of power.

However despite this pessimism, Foucault clearly still wants to see liberation. He is also hostile to many of the post-structuralist thinkers like Lacan and Deleuze, with whom he is often lumped, who argue that desire is inherently self-repressive. So referring to both the followers of the repressive hypothesis and the post-structuralist thinkers he writes:

They both rely on a common representation of power…[which] leads to two contrary results: either to the promise of a “liberation”, if power is seen as having only an external hold on desire, or, if it is constitutive of desire itself, to the affirmation: you are always-already trapped.[53]

The problem for Foucault is that his analysis of power relations doesn’t offer a way out of this problem. He can see that “[w]here there is power, there is resistance”. However when it comes to what form that resistance will take, the best he can assert is that “the rallying point for the counterattack against the deployment of sexuality ought not to be sex-desire, but bodies and pleasures”.[54] Without a subject of history capable of creating radical change, he is lost at sea.

Foucault rightly objects to the illusion by which people adapt themselves to the very strategies being used by the structures of power. He asserts that in order for liberation to be possible we need to be willing to expose what appears to be natural and organic as socially constructed and determined, and this is nowhere clearer than in regard to our sexuality. On this Marxists can agree; after all it was Karl Marx who called for a “ruthless criticism of everything that exists”, who subjected the supposedly natural activities of the market and the economy to a searing analysis exposing the historical reasons for their rise – and fall. But what Marx also showed was that there was a class in society with radical chains capable of creating a new society in which the old contradictions would be resolved in the interests of humanity as a whole. From Foucault we can learn a lot about how sexuality has developed, and even some of the why, but like other non-Marxist theorists, his useful insights need to be integrated into a broader conception of the world rooted in an analysis of capitalism and a strategy for revolutionary transformation. Only then can Foucault’s insights be integrated into a strategy for human liberation.

Bidet, Jacques 2016, Foucault with Marx, Zed Books.

Callinicos, Alex 1989, Against Postmodernism: a Marxist Critique, Polity.

Callinicos, Alex 2001, “Toni Negri: In Perspective”, International Socialism, 92, Autumn,

Carlin, Norah 1989, “The roots of gay oppression”, International Socialism, 42, Spring,

Chitty, Christopher 2012, “Towards a Socialist Art of Government: Michel Foucault’s “The Mesh of Power”, Viewpoint Magazine,

D’Emilio, John 1983 [1979], “Capitalism and Gay Identity”, Powers of Desire: The Politics of Sexuality, Monthly Review Press.

Drucker, Peter 2014, Warped: Gay Normality and Queer Anti-Capitalism, Brill.

Elden, Stuart 2016, Foucault’s Last Decade, Polity.

Foucault, Michel 1976, “The Mesh of Power”, Viewpoint Magazine,

Foucault, Michel 1978, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1. An Introduction, Penguin.

Jessop, Bob 1990, “Poulantzas and Foucault on Power and Strategy”, in State Theory: Putting the Capitalist State in Its Place, Polity.

Geras, Norman 1983, Marx and human nature: refutation of a legend, Verso.

German, Lindsey 1998, Sex, Class and Socialism, Bookmarks.

Kimball, Roger 1997, “The Marriage of Marx and Freud”, The New Criterion,

Lukács, Georg 1971 [1923], History and Class Consciousness, Merlin.

Marcuse, Herbert 1969, Eros and Civilisation, Abacus.

McGregor, Sheila 2011, “Sexuality, alienation and capitalism”, International Socialism, 130, Spring,

Negri, Antonio and Michael Hardt 2000, Empire, Harvard University Press.

Poulantzas, Nicos 1978, State, Power, Socialism, Verso.

Reich, Wilhelm 2012 [1972], Sex-Pol Essays, 1929-1934, Verso.

Wilson, Colin 2008, “Michel Foucault: friend or foe of the left?, International Socialism, 118, Spring,

[1] Foucault 1978. This article will focus almost exclusively on the first volume, both in the interests of space and because it is the most relevant to the present condition of sexuality.

[2] Foucault 1978, pp3-13.

[3] This is not strictly true in regard to the early Marxist writings by Wilhelm Reich who, drawing upon Engels, saw the origins of sexual oppression as developing at the same time as class society; see Reich 2012 [1972], p226. However this point wasn’t always clear to those influenced by him, both because of his later work and because many blurred the differences between Reich and Marcuse; see Kimball 1997.

[4] Foucault 1978, p6.

[5] Foucault 1978, p7.

[6] Drucker 2014, p16.

[7] Foucault 1978, p72.

[8] Foucault 1978, p10.

[9] Foucault 1978, p12.

[10] Foucault 1978, p11.

[11] Foucault 1978, p15.

[12] Foucault 1978, p24.

[13] Foucault 1978, p24.

[14] Reich 2012 [1972]; Marcuse 1966. These figures were influential across broad currents of the radical left, not just the usual hippies or free love types. For instance in the lead up to the May 1968 uprising in Paris, the March 22nd movement organised meetings in which the French Trotskyist Boris Frankel spoke on Reich and sexual oppression, while the anarchist leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit recalls selling copies of Reich’s The Sexual Struggle of Youth door to door in the Sorbonne. Reich 2012 [1972], pxxvi. This critique does not necessarily rule out that Marcuse and Reich made some positive contributions to our understanding of sexuality and capitalism. For a sympathetic assessment of Reich see Bertman Ollman’s introduction to Reich 2012 [1972], for Marcuse see Drucker 2014, pp12-14.

[15] Reich 2012 [1972], p237.

[16] Marcuse 1969.

[17] Reich 2012 [1972], p246. Reich does acknowledge the role of the family, however he sees this as a purely ideological factor that helps submissiveness among the masses rather than something which roots sexual oppression in the material structures of capitalism.

[18] Reich 2012 [1972], p246.

[19] Foucault 1978, p18.

[20] Foucault 1978, pp31-33.

[21] Foucault 1978, p157.

[22] Drucker 2014, p16.

[23] Foucault 1978, pp42-43.

[24] Foucault 1978, p38.

[25] D’Emilio 1979, pp100-101.

[26] Carlin 1989.

[27] Foucault 1978, pp121-122.

[28] The following section is a summary of the chapter “Periodisation”; see Foucault 1978, pp115-131.

[29] Foucault 1978, pp125-126.

[30] Foucault 1978, p126.

[31] Foucault 1978, p126.

[32] Lukács 1971 [1923], p55.

[33] German 1989, pp15-42.

[34] Foucault 1978, pp36-37.

[35] D’Emilio 1979, pp100-101.

[36] Foucault 1978, pp106-114.

[37] Foucault 1978, p85.

[38] See the section “The Question of Government and the Problem of the State”, from chapter 4 of Elden 2016.

[39] Foucault 1978, p92.

[40] Foucault 1978, p93.

[41] Foucault 1978, p35.

[42] Foucault 1978, p152-53.

[43] See Geras 1983 for a classic account of Marx and human nature.

[44] McGregor 2011.

[45] Foucault 1978, p178.

[46] Negri 2000, Poulantzas 1978 and Jessop 1990.

[47] Bidet 2016, Chitty 2012.

[48] Callinicos 2001.

[49] Foucault 1976.

[50] Bidet 2016, pp1-18.

[51] Bidet 2016, p4.

[52] See for instance Callinicos 1989, pp80-92 and Wilson 2008.

[53] Foucault 1978, p83.

[54] Foucault 1978, p157.

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Sarah Garnham critically examines theories on the left that have emerged in response to identity politics.

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Louise O’Shea analyses the position of women today. Engaging with recent feminist and Marxist discussions of women’s oppression argues that Marxism offers the only satisfactory theory and strategy for women’s liberation.

Marx and Engels on women’s and sexual oppression and their legacy

Friedrich Engels published his The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State in 1884. He argued that women’s oppression arose with the development of classes in society.  Most feminists of the 1960s and 1970s recognised Engels’ work as a key text, whether inclined to agree with or oppose him.  Yet for all the debates about the book, there is very little understanding of the actual content and importance of not just Engels’, but also Marx’s contribution to establishing the basics of a fight for women’s liberation.